I am trying to imagine a remake of Thelma and Louise, set some time in the near future. Seated in their car on the rim of the Grand Canyon, surrounded by police, with their only choices prison or freedom by annihilation, Thelma turns to Louise in the seat next to her and says, “Just go.”
“I can’t go,” says Louise.
“What do you mean, you can’t go?”
“This thing doesn’t have a gas pedal. Or a steering wheel.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. What if you type on the screen, ‘Drive fast toward the edge, we want to go out in a blaze of glory?’ ”
“I tried that. I got a 404 error message.”
“I told you not to steal a driverless car, Louise. Okay, fine. Let’s just go to prison. I hear they’re showing the 20th season of Orange is the New Black.”
I could not have been the only one picturing those road-trip desperadoes while watching Google unveil its postdriver car this week. In the video, passengers – in the Google world, fallible, lumpy humans are passengers, not conductors – strapped themselves in for a wild 25 mph ride. They looked quite happy, as if they were riding the monorail at Disneyland, or a rocking horse. The Google vehicle, with its foam fenders and plastic windshield, looks like one of those toy cars you see abandoned in playgrounds because they’re too embarrassing even for toddlers to drive. It looks like the car for people who already have a Segway in the garage.
In other words, it looks adorkable, as the kids like to say. It is not designed for people of my age group, who remember seeing Thelma and Louise and David Cronenberg’s Crash in the movie theatres, and who think of cars not as polluting cyclist-crushers but as sexy, liberating and fun. I fear the driverless car represents a generational divide, and I’m on the wrong side of the laxative bottle.
Millennials’ disenchantment with the car culture has been well documented. In the U.S., only slightly more than half of kids get a driver’s licence by the time they’re 18. As an article in Fast Company recently pointed out, “Unlike the baby boomers, who gained their independence and individuality from movies, music, cars and motorcycles, older teens and young adults today are expressing their freedom through social channels.”
They don’t feel the need to buy cars; they barely feel the need to drive them. And pretty soon, if Google has its way, they won’t have to. The driverless car unveiled in California this week was merely a prototype; Google plans to produce 100 more in the next year, but there’s no indication when, or if they’ll be ready for a mass market. I’m pretty sure Bruce Springsteen is not sitting around trying to come up with a sequel to his sexual-euphemism anthem Pink Cadillac: “I love you for your processor, your gigabytes, racing mobility scooters on a Saturday night …”
The Google team has pointed out, correctly, that driving can be dangerous, frustrating, toxic and inherently unfair to those, such as the disabled, who can’t drive. What they don’t mention is how much fun it can be, and how liberating. A successful drive – and most of them are – is a dance between you and the other drivers on the road, give and take, decisions that are made quickly and efficiently, all to the sound of Led Zeppelin on the radio. Interestingly, in The New Yorker’s story about driverless cars, reporter Burkhard Bilger describes the experience in much the same way: His sensor-guided Lexus zooms in and out of traffic “like a dancer in a quadrille.”
But the skills involved in driving are complex and human – they require physical dexterity and social acuity. We tend to remember the guy who cut us off, but much more common is the guy who waved us in. And if there’s danger involved, there’s also exhilaration at a task performed well. There is no better way to impress a first date than through a perfectly executed parallel park. We have so few actual skills left. Why lose one more?
I have a feeling that this may be a losing battle. The desire for autonomy and self-direction seems quaint in a time when we’re too lazy to choose what television shows to watch, and let our PVRs decide for us. Driving might just be too much of an effort.
It may be, one day soon, that we beetle down the road in our robot cars, stuffing food substitute into our pieholes while shopping online with the thumb-flippers that have replaced our hands. Perhaps James Bond will ride in a driverless Aston Martin that incapacitates villains with Nerf bullets and silly string.
I, for one, welcome our automated overlords. They’ll bring us a safer world – though I’m not sure it will be much fun.